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Hypotheses versus theories

Peter Anstey writes…

Chapter 5 of William Poole’s The World Makers (Peter Lang, 2010) opens with a very interesting epigraph from the Cambridge antiquarian Thomas Baker’s Reflections on Learning (1699):

    But we have been taught to distinguish betwixt Hypotheses and Theories, the latter of which are shrew’d things, as being built upon Observations in Nature, whereas hypotheses may be only Chymaeras: I should be glad to see that Theory, that is built upon such Observations …  (p. 82)

While Poole doesn’t mention the connection, this distinction almost certainly derives from William Wotton’s precursor to Baker’s book, namely, Reflections upon Ancient and Modern Learning (London, 1694). There, Wotton claims:

    In judging of Modern Discoveries, one is nicely to distinguish between Hypothesis and Theory. (p. 235) … And therefore, that it may not be thought that I mistake every plausible Notion of a witty Philosopher for a new Discovery of Nature, I must desire that my former Distinction between Hypotheses and Theories may be remembered. I do not here reckon the several Hypotheses of Des Cartes, Gassendi, or Hobbes, as Acquisitions to real Knowledge, since they may only be Chimaera’s and amusing Notions, fit to entertain working Heads. I only alledge such Doctrines as are raised upon faithful Experiments, and nice Observations; and such Consequences as are the immediate Results of, and manifest Corollaries drawn from, these Experiments and Observations: Which is what is commonly meant by Theories. (p. 244)

This hypothesis–theory distinction seems to be of Wotton’s own making. It is an effective means of dealing with the problem of the utility of hypotheses in a climate in which the notion of hypothesis was, to say the least, on the nose. Wotton spouts the standard anti-hypothetical rhetoric – the hypotheses of Descartes and others are mere chimeras ­­– but he is not insensitive to the fact that experiments and observations on their own are not sufficient for the advancing of true explanations.

Wotton was not an experimental philosopher. Rather, his Reflections was written as a defence of modern learning, and, in particular, the experimental philosophy, in the battle of the books. His comments and those of Baker, are therefore, indicative of the reach of the methodological stance of experimental philosophy beyond the writings of natural philosophers themselves.




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